Saturday, June 05, 2010

A Swirled America?

Last year I did a post inspired by a T-shirt that my son received as a gift called, A Swirled World. This is part of what I said at the time:

"I was also thinking that my son's T-shirt is an apt metaphor for the kind of world that Baha'is are striving to build. This is a world that is united in its diversity, where human differences come together in ways that make things better.

"This diversity, this difference is like the naturally created dissimilarity and variety of the limbs and organs of the human body, for each one contributeth to the beauty, efficiency and perfection of the whole. When these different limbs and organs come under the influence of man's sovereign soul, and the soul's power pervadeth the limbs and members, veins and arteries of the body, then difference reinforceth harmony, diversity strengtheneth love, and multiplicity is the greatest factor for co-ordination"(Abdu'l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu'l-Baha, p. 291).

In order for a swirl to work it requires that the different flavors can be both seen and tasted. Otherwise it is simply a big, sweet, mixed-up blob. Creating a global blob is not what Baha'is are trying to do. We are trying to swirl the world."

CNN has a story about a study recently released by the Pew Research Center about interracial marriage in America. It makes me wonder, are we moving toward a swirled America?:

(CNN) -- The first time Priya Merrill, who is Indian, brought her white boyfriend home for Thanksgiving in 2007, the dinner was uncomfortable and confusing. She still remembers her family asking if Andrew was the bartender or a family photographer.

The couple married last August, and her Indian family has warmed up to her husband despite their racial differences.

"I think we get the best of both cultures," said Merrill, 27, of New York. She added, "Sometimes I just forget that we're interracial. I don't really think about it."

Asian. White. Black. Hispanic. Do race and ethnicity matter when it comes to marriage?

Apparently, race is mattering less these days, say researchers at the Pew Research Center, who report that nearly one out of seven new marriages in the U.S. is interracial or interethnic. The report released Friday, which interviewed couples married for less than a year, found racial lines are blurring as more people choose to marry outside their race.

"From what we can tell, this is the highest [percentage of interracial marriage] it has ever been," said Jeffrey Passel, a senior demographer for the Pew Research Center.

He said interracial marriages have soared since the 1980s. About 6.8 percent of newly married couples reported marrying outside their race or ethnicity in 1980. That figure jumped to about 14.6 percent in the Pew report released this week, which surveyed newlyweds in 2008. (Read the whole story here. You can read additional recent media coverage of interracial marriage here, here, here, and here.)

Reading about the results of the Pew study and some of the stories associated with it got me thinking about a lot of things. One is that the patterns associated with interracial marriage are complex. For example, racial attitudes among various couples can range from color-blind to color-conscious (I prefer "color-loving" personally). Given my views on color-blindness , I'd be curious about the impact of color-blind ideology on interracial couples where one or both embrace it.

An issue that I don't hear discussed as much is what motivates choosing a marriage partner of a different race. Does the motive matter? My interest as far as motivation goes is whether a person's religious or spiritual beliefs motivate interracial marriage. Motivation is a really interesting area of research in the psychology of religion and something the Universal House of Justice has emphasized as central to religion's influence:

"Religion, as we are all aware, reaches to the roots of motivation. When it has been faithful to the spirit and example of the transcendent Figures who gave the world its great belief systems, it has awakened in whole populations capacities to love, to forgive, to create, to dare greatly, to overcome prejudice, to sacrifice for the common good and to discipline the impulses of animal instinct. Unquestionably, the seminal force in the civilizing of human nature has been the influence of the succession of these Manifestations of the Divine that extends back to the dawn of recorded history."
(The Universal House of Justice, 2002 April, To the World's Religious Leaders, p. 2)

Another thing that interests me are the social and spiritual implications of interracial marriage for the United States. What might the dynamics of racial unity and justice applied at that most intimate level of the family mean for race unity and justice in America as a whole?

"A family is a nation in miniature. Simply enlarge the circle of the household, and you have the nation. Enlarge the circle of nations, and you have all humanity. The conditions surrounding the family surround the nation. The happenings in the family are the happenings in the life of the nation...for nations are but an aggregate of families." (Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 156)

If you are in an interracial marriage, are on your way to an interracial marriage, have been in one in the past or are the child of an interracial marriage, I'd love to hear your thoughts. Of course anyone with a view on the subject is welcome as well.


  1. loved this article. thanks

  2. Anonymous10:56 AM

    My wife's mother was of both African-American and Native American ancestry. We suspect there were also Chinese ancestors. My wife's father was of British ancestry as far as we can determine. My wife was born in the early 1940s in Mississippi. Marriage and sexual relations between African-Americans and whites was prohibited and penalized by law at that time, but, in spite of this prohibition, countless children were born mostly of white men and black women during those strange years of legal racial segregation.

    As far as I know, multiracial ancestors on my side of the family go back several generations on both my mother's and father's sides and include blacks, whites, and Native Americans. Again, in spite of legal and social restraint against marriage and sexual relations between blacks and whites in Georgia and Mississippi and in many other states during slavery and after its repeal, there were relationships between them and there were children born. The vast majority of children born of these unions were of white men and black women within the last six or seven generations.

    We knew even as children that we were related to all kinds of people of a range of complexional hues ranging from black to white and everything in between.

    Our daughter married a man of Norwegian-British-Flemish background. Our son married a woman of Iranian birth whose ancestry includes an Ethiopian connection. We discovered later on that our son in-law is my wife's fifth or sixth cousin on her father's side. This is indicative of the unsuspected kinship of many Americans, regardless of their ancestry.

  3. Phillipe: Excellent posting - I love the image of swirled. With so many couples in interracial relationships, I hope there will be more and more resources and research on the topic.

    FYI, I'm just launching a new book, All-in-One Marriage Prep, with a diversity section that includes intercultural/interracial perspectives. Your readers might want to check it out at

    Keep raising our consciousness! Thanks...

    Susanne Alexander
    Marriage Transformation

  4. Your fine article brings to mind my observation that swirl of races in marriage, to use your term, tends to reduce racism in a society over the long run. In Puerto Rico, there has been so much racial mixing over generations that it is difficult to come up with a racial slur. The story was, "If everybody's grandmother was a slave or a whore, what insult is really useable or effective?" Anyway, it seemed to me that racism among Puerto Ricans is markedly less (though still not absent), than, say, in the U.S. mainland as a consequence.

    Another memory is the kids, from my Afro-American wife and my Euro-American self, when we moved to New Jersey into a "white" little town (Medford Lakes). Of course, the kids were always taught we all were "humans". In other words, nobody in the household was ever described as "black" or "white". At first, in kinder- and 1st-grade, all was well with the kids, the older girl, Grace, in school.

    Then there was the inevitable day -- Grace in tears because the other children called her "brown". For what it is worth, here is how I proceeded, being trained in the bio-medical sciences. I said,

    "Grace, everybody is brown, more or less. There are six genes that control skin pigments and everybody has at least one pigment, with the rare exception of albinos, who therefore look sort of pink (not light brown), since we see the blood color in the skin. People with two or more of the six pigments are more brown or darker brown. It is that simple."

    Being a bright girl, the tears were gone as Grace could see that all the kids were basically the same. "Tomorrow, you can teach this to the kids in the class", I said. We then proceeded to use various shades of brown paper to make several masks, so Grace could show the kids the results of one, two, or more pigments on skin color. Grace was over-joyed with this project and all smiles, took the masks to school with her the next day.

    Being out-going, Grace pulled it off -- I sort of guessed the teacher would welcome a little demo by a student (Grace), and before long Grace was a little Miss Popular and the other kids were coming to play at our house after school and the like. Happy ending.

  5. Great post, Phillipe. I really do love your thoughtful, spiritual, uniting way of expressing challenging and important ideas - without avoiding the challenge!


    This might be a good topic for your blog. BTW, really enjoy your blog!

  7. Thanks to everyone who has shared their personal experiences or reflections so far. This is an important topic and I look forward to hearing from more folks about it.

    Carol, thanks for the story I'll look into it.

  8. Anonymous2:38 PM

    An interesting post. Having been in an inter-racial marriage for 19 years, I have no regrets. Whilst physical attraction is not a good sole basis for a relationship, I think it plays its part. Personally, I was finding that I was more attracted to men of a different race. I have a theory that living in a small community and having grandparents that were first cousins and being related to an awful lot of people around me it was a way of safeguarding against inbreeding!

    Being in a marriage where we both come from different cultures is sometimes liberating and sometimes frustrating but mainly good. It can be liberating because there are certain cultural norms and expectations that I have grown up with that I do not agree with that are very different to my husband's culture so they are easy to drop. Sometimes there are things that I find I have unquestioningly adopted as I grew up and am not even aware of and sometimes, having someone to question those things is good.

    Sometimes it is frustrating when I see my husband saying or doing things that are the norm for his culture or expecting the children to, that I don't agree with but then it is all about negociation.

    Hopefully our children will grow up with the best of both. Certainly they are able to see two different cultures up close and have a much more world embracing vision to start with than I ever did. I was brought up to see the culture that I grew up in as superior and it was quite a shock to me when I travelled to see countries of other cultures functioning and sucessful. Then I realized that there is more than one way of doing things.

    Also, it is rather nice that my kids don't get sunburned easily like I used to.

    I also find the culture clash of the nuclear family and the extended family an interesting one. I find the lack of personal space and privacy a big issue when we stay with my husband's family. I think he misses having extra family members living with him when we are home. If he is stressed, he wants all his friends around to be social. If I am stressed, I want to be alone and shut all the doors and curtains for peace and quiet.

    It is not just the USA, much of the world is swirling.



  9. I love your blog especially this particular entry. Thank you.

    Let's expand your concept of "swirl America" even further. Most of my children were born and raised in Mississippi where we've lived for almost 30 years. The culture and people here are very different from the Jewish neighborhoods I grew up in in Detroit. The Deep South culture is also warm, friendly, helpful, and the food is great, but has grown distant and aloof from others through the years as it has in so many large metropolitan areas;)

    As my children grew up, several things were explained to them:
    1. We are a "mixed" race family because Daddy's people were killing Mommy's people before they came to the US. This is because Daddy's family were German, English, and Scots-Irish aristocracy and Mommy's family are all Jewish. So, isn't it good we're all Baha'is and none of that matters any more.

    2. It doesn't matter what color a person's skin is. What matters is the quality their soul. They were told about their parents efforts to adopt a Surinamese baby when we pioneered there, but unfortunately the baby died.

    When my older daughter married and attended the first of her husband's large, family Christmas dinner, the Grandma started telling family secrets. One of them was that her grandmother was Black (this is a very prominent white, family in Alabama). All eyes were on my daughter to see her reaction. Her response was, "That's great. My Mom will be thrilled with this because she's been trying to get some color in the family for years."

    3. In the US the color of a person's skin, unfortunately is important. In Europe it's a person's nationality (The French don't care for the Germans, the German's don't care for--a lot of different nationalities, and the list goes on.) But, there are a lot of strong prejudices/ bias that aren't so much dermatologically based but tribal, national, religious, gender, etc. Every country or tribe has its own prejudices. In the Philippines, it's "tribal". In Japan it is the Ainu. Iin India it is the "Untouchables." For more than a 1000 years Antisemetism has been a constant all over the world--even in today's US.

    The application of your Baha'i based concept of "swirled America" goes beyond skin color and the differences people "see" (real or artificial) in each other. The controversy over the mural in Arizona is but the very tip of a huge mountain of prejudices of which a large part is based on race.